Some homeless advocates in San Francisco are working to make the streets more hospitable for those who are forced to live on them. Proposition Q wants to nullify those efforts, by making encampments specifically illegal.
Encampments are illegal already. They violate sit/lie ordinances, rules against blocking the sidewalk and rules about sanitation and nuisances. Prop. Q would make temporary street shelters illegal in their own right. It would allow the city to remove encampments, as long as 24-hour written warning is given and shelter is available to offer up to people being relocated.
The author of the measure, moderate Supervisor Mark Farrell calls Prop. Q "a policy response to the ideas of some of my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors that I thought would take the city in the wrong direction.”
Progressive Supervisor John Avalos has proposed sanctioning tent encampments of a certain size. He’s argued the city should provide sanitation, water and trash disposal services. Others have floated the idea that the city should not be allowed to disband an encampment unless it can relocate residents to permanent supportive housing,
“People are fools if they don't think that would encourage more people to come to San Francisco," says Supervisor Farrell.
Instead of improving conditions at the encampments, Farrell wants to disband them and invest in Homeward Bound—the program where the city buys you a bus ticket elsewhere, if someone on the other end agrees to take you in. Last year, 880 people utilized the program at a cost of just over a million dollars.
Supervisor John Avalos says as long as people lack housing and shelter, Prop. Q is a redundant law that can't help the city's homeless problem. He accused the measure's backers of exploiting a wedge issue in order to "give the appearance that we are doing something about homelessness by increasing police action when that police action is already occurring and everything on our books already says that tents do not belong on our sidewalks."
San Francisco Magazine’s Joe Eskenazi has covered politics here for over 15 years. He thinks people who are hoping Prop. Q will ban tents, are in for a disappointment.
“A lot of people are going to run to the polls because [they] don't like tent encampments. If you read the fine print, though, of course you're not allowed to roust them unless you have housing and you don't have housing and that's in the law,” says Eskenazi. “So, with all due respect to Mark, I believe we are being motivated like cats with a laser pointer to run and vote on an issue that appeals to you.”
If anything, Eskenazi says there’s an added protection for people in tents. Under Prop. Q they’d at least get a day’s notice before a sweep. But, bottom line is, San Francisco has no plans to build enough housing for everyone living on the streets.
“Folks in the city are very upfront with me that without federal and or state help this won't happen, we can't do it,” says Eskenazi.
In order to house everyone, San Francisco would have to more than double its current spending -- currently roughly $100 million dollars annually on shelter and services for unhoused people. It spends another $120 million to permanently house thousands of people that have been transitioned out of homelessness. 80% of all that spending comes from the city. The rest is state and federal money. Some taxes on the local ballot this year would raise a bit more money for these services: Propositions J, K and S.
If they pass, the revenue from those measures will go toward the city’s main strategy, which is developing more navigation centers. Jeff Kositsky, the new head of the City’s homeless department, calls navigation centers “shelters as they should be,” meaning, low barrier to entry, high level of services, connected to permanent housing. But, again, when permanent housing is full, navigation centers can’t fully do their job.
Lots of people are working to make tent encampments a thing of the past. But in the meantime people are going on living in them. That’s why some San Franciscans, like housing organizer Amy Farah Weiss, think the conditions in encampments need to be improved now, for residents and neighbors. Farah Weiss is the founder of the St. Francis Homelessness Challenge and right now she's working to improve one encampment in particular, Box City. It’s next to the Caltrain tracks near Mission Bay. The residents here don’t live in tents, they live in boxes about the size of a double bed. There’s about 20 of them out here, housing people like Ringer Nobel.
“They’re homes for us,” says Nobel. “We build them with scrap wood and paint them, then put them on wheels and give them locks.”
The wheels allow the boxes to be moved for street sweeping, and the locks allow residents to get the kind of good sleep that’s hard to come by on the streets.
Amy Farah Weiss acts as liaison between the residents and it's neighbors. She says she’s found that as neighbors afford the Box City residents certain protections and dignities, “we’ve been able to ask more of them. We are able to hold them accountable, in return.” So, as she identifies “pain points” and deal-breakers for neighbors, she communicates those back to the Box City residents, who are eager to sustain what they've been able to build.
Farah Weiss is working to bring the services of a shelter to Box City. It’s the first encampment to get a portapotty. She brought extra trash cans. She hopes to even get caseworkers assigned to residents. “There needs to be support to connect people to services where they are at,” she says.
In other words, she represents the kind of approach that Supervisors like John Avalos are sympathetic to, and Supervisors like Mark Farrell caution against.
Sam Dodge, with the Homeless department, says the city is figuring out how best to work with Box City. They haven’t officially allowed it. Dodge says cities that have experimented with legalizing encampments, like Seattle and Portland, haven’t had good results with transitioning people out of them. And without the city’s full support, Amy Farah Weiss says the Box City residents are still routinely intimidated by DPW.
If Prop. Q passes, boxes, like tents, will be explicitly illegal. And, If the city bulks up its supply of housing and shelter, DPW will be able to enforce the ban. Without the shelter though, people on the streets may continue to be moved around with nothing to move for, treated the same way Joe Eskenazi described the voters—like cats with a laser pointer.